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Ashley Paine Fuchs, BSN, Nu’00

“I wasn’t the student who made it through four years of Penn with the typical ups and downs. My downs were rough and frequent, and it wasn’t just four years. I almost didn’t make it, until I did.

I started Penn Nursing right out of high school in 1991. But after a rocky first year, I was diagnosed with a new syndrome called “fibromyalgia.” I struggled with fatigue, chronic pain, and subsequent depression for two years while my grades suffered. My advisor gently suggested that I take a year off, which was hard to hear but necessary. I got a job and an apartment, learned how to be strict with my schedule, and returned the following year as a women’s studies/women’s health major in the CAS. I got straight As, graduating in 1996.

Then, I started over. I worked full-time at Penn Medicine and repeated science classes that I had failed (the third time is the charm with organic chemistry). I applied to the nursing program as a second-degree student. Though I was functional, my health was declining, the diagnoses were piling up, and my gut was telling me that they were all wrong. I wanted answers, and at that time, there were none to be had. Instead, I used my instincts and a revolving door of both western and alternative practitioners. In spite of these challenges, I graduated with a BSN in 2000, receiving the Florence Nightingale award for clinical excellence.

It had been my dream to be a midwife, but my illness was making that less of a reality every day. So, I became a certified doula. I took a med/surg position at CHOP and spent five years on the GI/Endocrine/Neurology floor. There, I fell in love with patient and family education: about new onset diabetes and management, chronic inflammatory bowel disease, or any other challenge they faced. I got married and became a mother of two children. My family moved to Maryland, and I would spend five more years at Children’s National Medical Center doing similar work.

It was around year nine of my career when my headaches really went pro. I used to get occasional migraines, but by now, they were blinding and frequent. I was so miserable at the end of every shift, I had to clutch a “hat” during the 45-minute ride home to throw up in. Finally, I couldn’t endure this any longer, and I did not want a patient to ever suffer because I was not 100 percent. I left my job and career after ten years of practice. It was hard to say goodbye to my goals. I wanted to get my PhD and teach, just like the role models at Penn who had helped me get this far. I think I would have made a really good nursing instructor. Education is my passion, and it was the one part of nursing I was truly great at.

A few years later, my medical mystery was finally solved: both of my children and I were diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a genetic connective tissue disease. I was almost 40, and I had been symptomatic since I was eight years old. We also have atlanto-axial instability, which caused those cervical headaches, and dysautonomia. Dysautonomia, among other things, causes poor oxygenation to the brain, making things like information-retention and focus extremely challenging. (Clearly, I fought hard for my education.) At this point, I was almost wheelchair bound, requiring a walker and scooters to move. In a span of four years, I had five surgeries to correct some of the degeneration and damage my body had endured. My neck has been fused, my shoulders anchored back in, and my back repaired to restore my ability to walk.

Through it all, my nursing perspective has helped me to be a powerful advocate for my children, myself, and even other patients. Several years ago, I started an award-winning blog to teach chronically ill patients how to navigate their relationships with their healthcare providers. I am much more functional today than I was before my diagnosis and surgeries.

So, when the pandemic hit, I was able to put my skills to use as a Medical Reserve Corps volunteer, working in a COVID testing site. I have also been trained to administer both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and I am ready to staff our state public vaccination sites as soon as they have the supply to meet the demand.

Even now, getting my BSN and earning the Nightingale award is one of the proudest moments of my life. As a disabled person, feeling “successful” has been a struggle. My undergraduate education felt like a steep uphill climb most of the way, and my retirement has at times felt more like quitting and defeat. To the professors and administrators who saw my potential and breathed life into it, I am truly grateful. The effect of my Penn education still ripples across my life to this day.”

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